Review: A Kind of Spark

October 3, 2020

Cover of A Kind of Spark, designed by ADHD illustrator Kay Wilson, showing colorful blue, white, and pink wavy sections filled with sharks, sparkles, and a book, that make up the hair or mind of the girl in the bottom right corner.

Autistic literature seems to be in the midst of a kind of renaissance. There’s so many new books by openly autistic writers being published, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll is one of these beautiful new books that prove centering neurodivergent stories creates vibrant, nuanced literature capable of outshining the words of neurotypicals who try to write over us.

A Kind of Spark is a middle grade novel that features an 11-year-old autistic protagonist, Addie. Addie lives in the Scottish village of Juniper, where, she discovers, hundreds of years ago several women were accused of being witches, and were tortured and murdered. Although her classmates react with a dark thrill at this knowledge, Addie is different. She deeply feels and understands the pain of the persecuted women. Their persecution isn’t a distant historical event to Addie, but something she lives every day as an autistic girl experiencing ableism in its many forms. Addie is determined to do what she can to alleviate the weight of this injustice, and campaigns to have a memorial built for the women accused of being witches.

Although A Kind of Spark has many bright moments, it can be an emotionally heavy read that thoroughly examines the oppression of neurodivergent people. “Witches” are not just innocent fun, but real women who were persecuted for being women and for being different, or neurodivergent. The problems Addie faces are not caused by her disability, but the modern ways that this systemic oppression manifests.

Addie’s sister Keedie, an autistic first-generation college student, is one of the brighter parts of her story. Keedie guides Addie on her journey toward greater self-awareness and acceptance by helping her understand what it means to be autistic. She introduces Addie to concepts from autistic culture, like functioning labels, masking, and autistic meltdowns and burnout. Her steadfast support of Addie helps Addie understand both herself and the complex individuals that make up her world.

Because so many aspects of autism are explained, I was concerned that Addie’s autism might be described in a way meant to educate readers. It’s a common trope in books about autism, because most autism books are written with neurotypical audiences in mind. Although neurotypical readers can learn a lot from A Kind of Spark, the explanations of autism and autistic culture remain firmly rooted in Addie’s voice: her perceptiveness, honesty, and desire to understand herself and her world better. It’s a skilled way of reframing the trope of autism-as-education from an autistic point of view.

Addie and Keedie are excellent autistic role models. Their story will help autistic readers of all ages discover more about themselves and their communities, including some who don’t know they’re autistic yet. And Addie and Keedie are relatable and lovable characters because they’re autistic, not despite it. I highly recommend A Kind of Spark, especially for those seeking brilliant books for middle grade readers, books that explore the discrimination disabled children face, or books that feature autistic main characters.

Content Warning for A Kind of Spark: Brief discussion of torture, including torture by burning, drowning, and the use of torture devices; use of ableist slurs that are challenged; bullying of a child by both children and adults; autistic meltdown and burnout; exploration of ableism and misogyny in various historical and modern contexts, including institutionalization, bullying, exclusion, and punishment at school.

Here are some places and formats this book is available in as of October 3, 2020. (I am not a part of any affiliate programs and do not receive compensation for links, clicks, or purchases.)

Round Table Books (UK) has a paperback edition

Waterstones (UK) has a paperback edition

Amazon Kindle edition (US)

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